In a case in the Medieval London gallery at the Museum of London lies a small pewter badge depicting a Tudor rose combined with a pomegranate. These were the heraldic devices of Henry VIII and his first queen, Katherine of Aragon. Katherine made only a fleeting appearance in the first episode of Wolf Hall on the BBC, but it was enough to remind us of the fairly tragic life that she led.
The daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, she was born into privilege and was betrothed at the age of three to Arthur, the heir of Henry VII, who was a year younger. At fifteen she made an arduous sea voyage to England to marry Arthur; she was never to return to her homeland. On 14 November 1501 amidst much splendour they were married at St Paul’s Cathedral, a model of which can be seen in the Medieval London gallery.
They moved to Ludlow Castle where less than five months later Arthur died and Katherine entered a period of limbo. In order to secure the remainder of her dowry, Henry VII sought to marry her to his second son, Henry, Duke of York, who was now his heir. Henry, who was six years younger than Katherine was clearly attracted to her. But the marriage was no simple achievement as it depended on a papal dispensation. Katherine swore that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated and that she was therefore free to marry her dead husband’s brother, which was forbidden under canon law. For over six years she waited, often finding herself and her household in a state of dire financial need, as her father and father-in-law wrangled over the dowry payment and the legality of her marriage to Arthur. In April 1509 Henry VII died and Henry VIII became king. The pope granted the dispensation, annulling Katherine and Arthur’s marriage. Henry and Katherine were swiftly married in a private ceremony at Greenwich and were crowned together at a joint coronation in Westminster Abbey in June. A woodcut shows them enthroned, sitting under their respective heraldic motifs – the Tudor rose and the pomegranate of Aragon.
The pomegranate is an ancient symbol for fertility and regeneration and in the Christian church is a sign of Christ’s resurrection. It would have been seen as a very apt symbol for Katherine and the promise of heirs that her marriage brought. The badge, showing the Tudor rose and the pomegranate of Aragon dimidiated (combined so that only half of each is visible), probably either dates to the time of Katherine’s marriage to Arthur or to her subsequent marriage to Henry. Such badges would have been worn by loyal subjects who wanted to show their love for their king and queen. Katherine and Henry’s early married life seems to have been very happy. They were clearly in love – both were attractive and well-educated with shared interests in the arts, humanities and politics. And both were popular with their subjects. In 1516 their daughter Mary was born, but their hopes for a male heir were not to be fulfilled: Katherine suffered at least two miscarriages and bore three children who died in infancy, including a son, Henry, Prince of Cornwall, who lived for just under two months. For Katherine, her device of a pomegranate, such a clear symbol of fertility, must have been heart-breaking.
After nine years of marriage and six pregnancies, their only surviving child was their daughter, Mary. Henry had had mistresses but overall had remained faithful to Katherine, but now he became increasingly restless and impatient. His eye roved around the court and there he spied the younger sister of one of his ex-mistresses, Anne Boleyn. The rest of this story can be watched over the coming weeks, played out in ‘Wolf Hall’.